Netflix’s Archive 81: straight-washing, risk-less, lackluster
To begin, this review is a labor of love. My love for the original “Archive 81” podcast first sparked from my many failed attempts to fill the cassette tape shaped hole in my heart after the dramatic conclusion of Jonathan Sims’ “The Magnus Archives,” a horror podcast juggernaut that ended in March of 2021. Traditional horror never really clicked with me, and “The Magnus Archives” was the first time I found myself genuinely interested in the genre. So, when I was recommended a similar but unique podcast called “Archive 81,” I was enthusiastically intrigued. It took me a single day to finish the first season. Suffice to say, when I started to watch Netflix’s new adaptation of the show, I was thoroughly disappointed. I understand that the point of many forms of media is to fill a quota, to make money, and to garner attention, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hold pieces of media to the high, high standard of “watchable without an empty pit in my stomach, and not in the good way.”
Now, back to the labor of love talk. Watching all eight episodes of the adaptation is an absolute necessity for this review to be made in good faith. And in order to understand the failings of its adaptation, a look into the successes of the original is essential.
What Makes “Archive 81” Good?
Season one of “Archive 81” begins and ends with Daniel Powell. Daniel is attracted to his job for financial reasons. Liam Davenport, his new boss, commits himself to thoroughly intimidating his new employee with legal threats and all things of that manner to keep him chained to his work. Dan is scrutinizingly observed, every second of his time working for Davenport being voyeuristically cataloged by his employer. The podcast does a wonderful job of painting Dan as a sympathetic character who loves his work despite its difficulties, gets too nervous to talk to his girlfriend, and can’t bring himself to kill a rat that has been pilfering his food. The gullible but kind-hearted Daniel Powell is a likable, unique character and is used as a parallel for the audience. His connection to the story is based in his own intrigue, an inhuman thirst to know the end of the story. He’s an example of an effective way to make an intriguing main character that works in the interests of the listener.
Season two is the beginning of the bodily terror and unknowable horror aspect of the podcast. It’s when the podcast finally finds its footing in being genuinely scary. Since this is a spoiler free review, specifics will not be aired, but much of the body horror introduced in this season is targeted towards Dan Powell.
Season three and “Left of the Dial” remove their focus from Dan Powell and Melody Pendras. It instead leans into Nicholas Waters, a harried academic, his half-sister Christine, and their adventure with their friend “Static Man,” a 27 year old man made of static and human teeth as they try to complete an important ritual.
Podcasts as a medium for fictional content tend to lean to the queer side. “The Penumbra Podcast,” “The Magnus Archives,” “Wolf 539,” “Welcome to Nightvale,” “Alice Isn’t Dead,” “The Bright Sessions,'' and “Brimstone Valley Mall'' are just a notable few. “Archive 81” is not a stranger to this phenomenon. Queerness is built into its story, as the idea of oddities that cannot be comprehended by the public consciousness can speak to a lot of queer people. Isolation, disgust, and self hatred are all part of the philosophies behind the more queer leaning tropes of the story. Podcasts, specifically horror fiction ones, are widely regarded a safe space for queer people. Melody Pendras, our leading lady for the first two seasons, is a lesbian; she has a wife and does not express any interest in men. The many queer faces of “Archive 81” are complex, no matter their run time. Comments about how her love for her wife is “a phase” and arguments about why people are making excuses as to why Melody could possibly like men are both things that not only speak to, but validate many lesbian’s experiences with society and their sexualities. Many characters are ambiguously queer, or lay outside of conventional terms. The erasure of these themes is a direct violation of the themes of the podcast. Atypicality is inherent to queerness, but the overall theme of atypicalitiy is the lifeblood of “Archive 81.” Tape recorder people, (weird) people, and horrifying amalgamations beyond human comprehension— all of these strange but effective mediums of horror are (nearly) unique to the story presented to the listener.
None of these aspects were adapted to the Netflix show. Not a single one. Eldritch horrors are now Christian demons. Dan Powell is now Dan Turner, and his motivation to see Melody Pendras’ story? Instead of using an unnatural attraction to the story as a narrative device, Dan is in love with Melody Pendras, and is navigating her story to save her. “Isn’t Melody a lesbian?” You might be asking. She is no longer a lesbian in the show, making out with the main villain of the show not even half way through the 3rd episode. Her wife is now her best friend and roommate, who is still a lesbian for some reason, her name being changed from Alexa to Annabelle. The story has been entirely stripped back.
Risks and the complete lack thereof
The best piece of media literacy advice I have ever received was from a great, and now retired, video essayist named Lindsay Ellis. In her video “Hercules, Disney's Beautiful Hot Mess, a video essay” she examined the failings of the 1997 Disney movie “Hercules.” She proposes that the narrative success of a piece of media is mounted on the risks it chooses to take. She asserts that a piece of media without risks is boring, and one built on risk and nothing else is nonsense. She criticized “Hercules” for the same reason I criticize “Archive 81:” the story is one tall glass of over-drafted tropes.
To put it simply, the adaptation eliminated the originality of the podcast’s plot, leaving nothing but a shallow, tropey husk in its place. When adapting something from one medium to another, there have to be changes made; perhaps the unknowable horror would be less impactful or harder to portray on the TV screen. These obstacles, and how creators approach them, are what make cinema interesting, and when producers simply write around those challenges without doing anything fresh or new, it’s tiring, boring, and makes me want to fall asleep on my sofa. Eldritch horror is unique in its association with antiquation. When you think about Cthulhu and Lovecraftian beings, it evokes images of old tomes, tentacled monsters, and the tea colored pages of the book they’re described in. It’s not like Netflix hasn’t dipped their toes in eldritch horror before. “The OA” and “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” are both shows that have a focus on a lovecraftian themed baddie. So why remove that from the plot? The narrative also introduces overused tropes that wholly did not